DRINK WITH ME To days gone by.
The name of Noël Coward is fairly synonymous with the biting, devastating verbal wit of his farces like Blithe Spirit, in which well-off Brits behave badly, having at each other with verbal razors. But audiences have the chance to experience a quite different Coward in his A Song at Twilight, written in 1966, more than 20 years after Blithe Spirit and only a few years before the playwright's death. In this bracingly candid drama, the cleverness is softened; the show's greater concern is the quieter ambivalence of the human heart. A Song at Twilight receives a sensitive, beautiful production at Portland Stage Company, under the direction of Paul Mullins, interwoven with performances of Coward's own songs.
In fact, the production opens with "You Were There," happily sung and played on a gorgeous antique baby grand by a spotlighted young man (Harrison M. Beck, admirably recreating Coward's own phrasing). This is Felix, a waiter in the elegant hotel that is home to elderly playwright Sir Hugo Latymer (Edmond Genest) and his personal assistant-cum-wife Hilde (Maureen Butler). In this high-ceilinged suite (luxurious set design by Brittany Vasta), Felix returns often to the piano in Hugo's presence, and in doing so, he poses a poignant younger counterpoint to the older man, whose younger passions are at the center of this show: When a former lover, Carlotta (Carol Halstead) visits for dinner, she has more than nostalgia in mind, having brought along decades-old letters that Hugo would rather forget.
Carlotta is an immediate wrench in the works of Hugo's carefully manicured life; as she herself remarks, she is as "rude" as he is "pompous:" Impulsive and proudly lacking refinement, Halstead's Carlotta stretches provocatively, snaps the salad tongs at him, eats caviar from the serving bowl (doing a little delicious-happy-dance in her chair as she does), and flirts with the waiter. (Beck's Felix is delicious, tempering his waiter's pleasant servility with lingering smiles and backwards looks at the older woman fawning over him.) And most importantly, Halstead makes clear that Carlotta knows exactly how to goad Hugo in ways he finds most uncomfortable and thus infuriating.
Hugo, in the hands of Genest (who appeared at PSC last season in Heroes), treats Carlotta with uncompromising rigidity and unveiled distaste. He convincingly presents a man who has not only calcified in his just-so ways, through a life of success and coddling, but who has grown a disdain and meanness for the world because of it. Halstead's Carlotta sees this in him and more, and is a great foil for it. Her character has an interesting series of turns to reveal; she shifts nicely from wry teasing to her more serious concerns, though I'd like to see her bare her own stakes a little more starkly.
As the current woman in Hugo's life, Butler's merry, maternal Hilde is a delight. She warmly and with great subtlety conveys how her character's substantial wisdom, affection, and good humor manage to contain decades of ambivalence in her relationship with Hugo, whose rote cruelty to her she calls him on but still takes in stride. Butler is especially luminous in Act Two, once Hilde has come home pleasantly tipsy and forthcoming from a few stingers. Her most candid monologue to Hugo is met with what Genest's posture makes clear is a soul-wrenching devastation.